The Migrant And The City: The Need For Multiple Narratives

by | Nov 19, 2016

How can one describe a city? For a few, its the hustle – the traffic jams, overcrowded market places and tall buildings, always under construction. For some, the way it looks: the slums with tiny little houses or the high rise buildings that lie right beside them. For others, a city is a place for pretty streets with cafes and bars and all comforts in one place. To each his own.

There is something common in all three descriptions – the people. A city as we know it is not a homogeneous entity. If the description of a city is the tip of an iceberg, the people who make it are the layers lying underneath – more complex, invisible most of the time.


Buildings that adorn the streets of Mumbai

The city is constantly exporting people beyond its border, so is the frequency of the people entering within. So what makes it it is? Who belong here and who do not? Who contributes more to the development of it and who doesn’t?

For instance, every three out of ten people in India are migrants. The National Survey sample Office (NSSO) report of 2007-2008 concludes that 28.5% of the Indian population constitutes of internal migrants in specific. So clearly a good share of a city’s population does not belong there. And also do not enjoy the privileges the city has to offer.

The reasons for migration may vary – employment, education, distress or even marriage. So are the issues faced by them after migration. The issues faced by a Tamil software engineer in Mumbai is different from a Bihari construction worker in Delhi. The magnitude of social exclusion encountered by the latter is immense. On a closer examination, the reason behind migration is similar in both cases – availability of opportunities. However, the former is considered a contributor to development and the latter a disturbance.

Recently, I had to do a quick research on the media portrayal of migrants for an upcoming conference by UNESCO. Out of the four online platforms chosen, two were the online portals of traditional newspapers (The New Indian Express and Times of India) and two were completely digital portals (The wire and Scroll). This quick search revealed that collectively a total of 70 stories were published over a period of three months (June, July and August 2016).

The results that appear under news when the word “migrant” is typed on google. The negative connotation attached to the word was quite evident from the news feed that appeared.

It is also necessary to confess the political scenario of the nation during this period could also be a major reason for the skewed ratio of migration stories in comparison to other topics. There were indeed a handful of well researched stories published on all these portals. However, the stories that gained most attention were the ones that had a great deal to do with current political parties ( National:The Kairana migration issue, International: The plight of Indian immigrants stuck amidst changing political scenarios in the United Kingdom and the United States).

Although a handful of interesting articles on the cultural and art perspective of it were also published, most of them seemed to fall into similar patterns. Internal migrants in India seemed to have one singular picture: The city – a hostile place; the migrant – a victim striving within to make ends meet; civil society organizations – rescuers of these victims. The idea is not to contradict with this narrative, but to question the absence of other possible ones.

I would definitely not deny the truth in these narratives. Issues of human trafficking and uninformed migration definitely deserve attention like the reasons behind it. But what about the ones that were brave enough to pursue their aspirations despite the difficulties? That woman who stepped of her house for the first time to work in a city? Household work coming to a standstill without the help of domestic workers who are mostly migrants? The link between the cheap labor they offer and the discounts  incurred on various things we purchase or the relationship between the prosperous parts of the city and the rag-picker who lives amidst the garbage dump.

Because we all know who are these individuals and why they migrate. We’ve had enough sad looking images of them travelling on top trucks and trains towards the city. Enough has been told about the drought and failed government policies that bring them here. Maybe not enough, but enough to shadow out the parallel images that could have been portrayed well. For instance, the underreported records of women migrating for employment. Till date the existing records of both census 2001 and NSSO 2007-008 report marriage as the only reason for migration for majority of women. There is still very less discussion about the women in labor force and their contribution to development.

There are larger discussions that have not seen the light of the day. Mostly they remain as discussions only within the academic circle. For instance, recently I got the opportunity to attend the orientation day of a conference held by UNESCO here in Delhi as an audience.  It was broadly about Media and its role in shaping public perception through its portrayal about migrants. My mentor happened to be a presenter in it, hence the quick research. The information exchange that happened there hardly ever reaches the general public. The concept of social remittances was something that grabbed my attention from the materials I took back home to read. It largely dwells into the transformations a migrant goes through at the destination location and the changes he/she helps achieve in the source location with the same. It can be as simple as the absence of caste differences in cities when it comes to access to a public water resource or the woman becoming the decision maker of a household in a village when the man is away earning in the city.

These are narratives that deserve attention too. Women who transformed into braver individuals; men who yearn to go back home; stories of acceptance and resistance towards harsh working conditions; the cultural shocks and gradual adaptations. All of them need to be told. They deserve the right to be heard. If informed decisions are the ultimate goal of anything, then the absence of perspective could be nothing but a blunder.

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  1. Swati Saxena

    Great mix of facts and opinions. One of the best reads in a while. Brilliant writing!

  2. Esha Dwibedi

    A great read Maithreyi. Bringing in so many layers and a good mix of facts and opinions.

  3. Anupama Pain

    Excellent read Maithreyi … so insightful. Almost like a poetry (even data can be poetic, revelation) 🙂


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